I went to the top of Daecheongbong (Seoraksan), which at 1708 meters is the highest mountain peak in all of Gangwon Province, and the highest peak in mainland South Korea outside of the Jirisan mountains.
Jirisan and Deogyusan (which contain most of mainland South Korea’s highest peaks) have a bunch of high peaks clustered together, but Daecheongbong is the only high peak in Seoraksan, so it really towers over everything which surrounds it.
During fall foliage season, it is extremely difficult to get a reservation in the mountain shelters in Seoraksan, and if you are not fluent in Korean AND have a South Korean residency number (which, as a tourist, I do not have), getting a reservation is effectively impossible. Therefore I knew I had to hike Daecheongbong in a single day without staying in Seoraksan overnight (I slept in Sokcho).
Remember how I said that any mountain with ‘ak’ is difficult to hike. That includes SeorAKsan.
Since I couldn’t start before sunrise, and I needed to finish before sunset, the only reasonable option was the shortest trail up Daecheongbong, the Osaek course. It is a highly developed trail which does not require much skill.
The problem was not the quality of the trail. The problem is that you have to ascend from about 400 meters above sea level to 1708 meters above sea level in just 5.3 kilometers. If you have some hiking experience, you can appreciate just how brutally steep such a trail is.
I was concerned about having enough daylight, so I pushed myself harder than I usually would – during the entire ascent, I only rested twice, and only for five minutes each time.
My high cortisol/adrenalin levels must have done the trick – even though this trail typically takes 3-4 hours on the way up, I managed to get to the top of Daecheongbong in less than three hours.
Since I arrived at the top earlier than anticipated, I was a lot more relaxed on the way down – well, going downhill instead of uphill helped too. Instead of U-turning and going back to Osaek, which doesn’t have much in the way of views since they are mostly blocked by trees, I decided to take the longer yet highly scenic route towards Biseondae.
To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the scenery on the way up, and even at the peak – seriously, were people making a big fuss over *this* – but it turns out that the Yangpok course is much more beautiful than the Osaek course.
Back in Sokcho, I talked to a Korean hiker who had gone through the same route the preceeding day. Unlike me, he had gotten a reservation at Yangpok shelter, which he said had been extremely difficult. On the way up the Osaek course, he hiked with two American women who, according to him, did not have much sense.
The Americans had gone up the Osaek course really slowly, resting a lot. This was partially because they were carrying a tent and sleeping bags (whereas I had made my pack as light as possible). Furthermore, they were wearing sneakers, not hiking boots. I thought the trail was so developed that sneakers were fine, but the Korean hiker disagreed, saying you had to wear hiking boots to be safe (I myself had worn hiking boots because I didn’t know the trail condition in advance). He was concerned about them, so he stayed with them.
The Americans had not made any shelter reservations. I explained to the Korean hiker that some of the information in the English-language website about mountain shelters is inaccurate. For example, the English language website says that Yangpok Shelter does not accept reservations, when in fact reservations are required – thankfully, a Korean had consulted the Korean-language website and given me the correct information so I planned accordingly. Furthermore, the process for getting shelter reservations as a non-resident who does not speak Korean is frustrating – I explained to him what I had to do to get a mountain shelter reservation in Jirisan. He agreed that the system for handling foreign hikers in South Korean mountain shelters is bad.
However, the Americans hadn’t even checked the English language website, or make any kind of inquiry into the availability of mountain shelters. That was 100% their fault.
It was getting dark when they arrived at Yangpok shelter, where the Korean hiker had a reservation. He said that the shelter staff were very angry about the fact that the Americans not having a reservation and not having the good sense to start the hike early enough to get out before dark. However, it was already almost dark, so the shelter staff found space for the two American women.
The next day, the Americans went to the campsite where they planned to set up their tent … and of course, they didn’t have reservations, and since it was the fall foliage season the campground was already full.
So the lesson is this: check conditions (such as mountain shelter availability) before your hike.
Meanwhile, the next day, I had a lovely experience descending Daecheongbong and taking all of these photos.
You can read about somebody else’s hike up Daecheongbong at KLIMBING KOREAN MOUNTAINS (note: though they went up the Osaek course, like I did, they exited Daecheongbong by a different route).